It’s Game of RhôneS 2017 in Brisbane and future City Winery co-founder Adam Penberthy is rambling about, glass in hand, looking for another fine wine to try.
Eagerly scanning the stalls of winemakers busy selling their wares, he is struck like a bolt of lightning by a blackboard sign proclaiming: “Try our wine made in the back of a shipping container.” Intrigued, Adam makes his way to the front and has his first conversation and glass of red with winemaker and the other City Winery co-founder, Dave Cush. This is the start of a very important relationship and one that will indelibly change the face of Brisbane’s wine scene.
Just a few years after that meeting, Brisbane’s first working urban winery opened its doors. It’s a highly ambitious project; you wonder how Adam and Dave created the concept so fast.
Modern brick and clean lines are the frame for this wonderful establishment, which features a bar, restaurant, private dining room, open fire pit kitchen and the makings of a working winery, including an array of wines ageing in French and American oak and a basket press. Their wine brand, Gerler, is based on a largely unknown epoch in Brisbane’s winemaking history (more on this later).
City Winery had its foundations in Dave’s mind way back in 2010.
“I always wanted to get closer to the market and bring winemaking into the city,” he says. “About 2010, I first started thinking about how much fun an urban winery would be. I quickly discovered that the urban winery model was a proven one in other parts of the world, which gave me confidence the idea had legs.”
The journey is a real family affair, with Dave’s wife Kris hand-painting the labels – and it was Kris who taught Dave how to make wine early on.
“Most of my artworks are painted on wood panel, canvas or paper and all the Gerler labels have a story inspired by the journey of making each individual batch of wine.”
The 2017 Grenache is currently her favourite design.
“It has a red box and a cross on the top of it, which was inspired by Dave’s epic brush with death at vintage,” she says.
“During the winemaking, Tropical Cyclone Debbie hit Brisbane and the door to the shipping container where he was fermenting the wine was blown shut.
“Dave was trapped with ferments, which emit an enormous amount of carbon dioxide. Needless to say, he did eventually get out, but it captures the essence of Gerler.”
All their wines are hand-labelled by the family when it comes time for bottling, so you can feel the personal touch and love in every bottle. This warm personality is something that permeates through the whole of the City Winery: it is professional, yet informal, slick, yet relaxed, classy, yet approachable.
Reflecting on the Game of Rhônes meeting, it’s hard not to feel a sense of destiny and combined purpose that has led to the City Winery.
“My wife and I were looking at buying a small vineyard in the Granite Belt wine region where we were going to set up a tourism venture,” Adam says.
“The initial conversation with Dave was around making wine for us – the vineyard didn’t work out in the end, which was probably a blessing in disguise, and led to Dave and I undertaking the urban winery.
“We see what we’re doing as being a wine playground providing people with an exciting wine experience that they can’t get anywhere else in the city.”
Adam talks big about the future, with Brisbane booming and set to grow significantly over the coming years.
“We want to provide an environment that is all things ‘wine’, allowing a customer to come in and if they are interested, meet the winemaker, do a barrel sample of a wine currently fermenting, or during vintage be part of the entire winemaking experience,” he says.
“We also offer daily winery tours, winemaker dinners and tastings, along with wine blending, and food and wine matching workshops.
“In the evening, the barrel room at the front of the site transforms into a space capable of fitting more than 100 people for functions and events, with a dedicated public bar and restaurant at the rear of the property for intimate dining.”
On top of this, they have just started their ‘vintage membership’ experience, a first for Queensland wine.
“Vintage members go through the entire winemaking process, this year using shiraz grapes sourced from Heathcote in Victoria, following the journey from bunches of fruit to finished wine,” Adam says. “Members stomp on grapes, plunge ferments, press off the fruit, blend, then finish with bottling, labelling and drinking their own wine.”
There are four hour-long sessions held on four Sundays across a 12-month period, where, after oak ageing, members make the final blend. The wine is made available at the cellar door and each member takes a six pack of the wines home with them to drink.
Another crucial element of the City Winery partnership is chef Travis Crane, who has previously worked at Michelin-starred De Wulf in Belgium and spent years behind the stove at Ballandean Estate’s iconic Barrelroom restaurant.
“Our ethos is to source the best quality produce from as locally as possible and then cook it simply,” Travis says.
“Almost all of our food is cooked over fire in our custom-built 4m brick hearth, which sous chef Tristan Pabst and I designed. Expect to see dishes coming out of camp ovens, food buried in embers, whole primal cuts slow roasted above the fire, and fruit and veg hung and roasted in the hearth.
“We utilise the fire at every stage of its life, smoking over a new fire, grilling over the coals, slow cooking in embers and dehydrating high above the fire.”
Like the winemaking, Travis says they approach food with a very open mind, always exploring new techniques and methods, and flavour combinations.
“We ask our farmers what they have available each week and ask ourselves what is the most delicious thing we can do with the produce,” he says with fervor.
“Our meat is sourced from ethical, free-range and grass-fed operations, and the whole carcass is utilised, with everything smaller than a cow being butchered in-house.”
“We have a bank of dry-ageing cabinets in The Dining Room, allowing us to hold and enhance our meat as we work our way through the different cuts.”
“We make as much as possible in-house, including cultured cream, butter, bread and charcuterie, ferments and pickles – we will be aiming to start our own miso and vinegar programs before long.”
The flagship wine offered at City Winery and made by Dave, continues the 150-year-old story of Carl Gerler, a beautiful marriage of history and modernity.
“It is a little known fact that in the 1800s, there were about 350 acres of grape vines under production across Brisbane,” Adam says. “There were the Lamberts at Indooroopilly and the Pullens at Pullenvale who had a significant vineyard.
“And then of course there was Carl Gerler, who had a 5.6 hectare lot on the Brisbane River around the Doomben Racecourse area in the 1800s.
“He also went out to Warwick and Toowoomba because he believed the grapes were very high quality. He would bring the grapes back to the city via the arduous journey with horse and cart, making wine with and for the people.”
So just like the Carl of yesteryear, the benefit of the modern Gerler approach is that Dave can turn his skilled hand to many varietals from right across Australia. The result: an excellent mix of grapes that suit a variety of palates and price points.
Split Enz declares that “history never repeats” in the eponymous song, but more than 150 years after Carl Gerler, thank heavens it has in a new playground for wine drinkers, makers, educators and food lovers to enjoy together.
“City Winery Brisbane will offer experiences that you can’t get anywhere else,” Dave sums up.
“I would like the venue to offer egalitarian wine immersion experiences in which visitors have fun, indulge their passion for wine and if they accidentally learn heaps about winemaking, then that is a bonus.
“It is a place for wine lovers and foodies to simply love and explore wine.”
Wines to try
2019 Gerler Sorelle, A$35
A blend of fiano and vermentino, lemon, ginger and white flowers on the bouquet move into saline and tropical flavours on the palate. A great seafood wine.
2019 Gerler Grüner Veltliner, A$35
Austria’s favourite white grape grown in the Adelaide Hills gets a tropical makeover. Honeydew, melon, apple tatin and spice all work in harmony before a cleansing dry finish.
2019 Gerler Rosé, A$30
A blend of grenache and sangiovese, a lovely mix of strawberry, raspberry, watermelon, orange peel, candied cherry and nougat. A nice finish of herbs, spice and acid.
2019 Gerler The Fog, A$28
A luscious blend of nero d’Avola, touriga nacional, pinot noir and tempranillo with every element playing its rightful part. Clove, white pepper, nutmeg, chalk and red and purple fruits nicely balanced by acid and soft tannin.
2017 Gerler Reserve Death Box Grenache, A$110
The nose reveals panforte, plum, black raspberries and lavender. The mouth continues with black fruit in spades, spice, ink and some earthy brick notes. A long, dry finish.